A day of deep reflection, questions, prayer and silence.
- Photos by Shanda Nicholas
Our final day in El Salvador found us waking up in Perquin to head to Mass led by Padre Rogelio Poncel, the Priest we had met the day before over breakfast. Padre Rogelio preached about John the Baptist, calling particular attention to the differences between the messages of John and Jesus. For the Baptist, Rogelio claimed, the stress was “on the rights of God” and therefore of the need for all humans to cherish God and follow his demands. For Jesus, the focus was on “the rights of human beings.” For Jesus we can respond to God only if we are responding to our fellow human beings. He concluded that it is in loving our neighbor that we love God and that in cherishingthe rights of our neighbors that we respect the rights of God. There is no going to God without going to our neighbor.
The mass was also punctuated with lively singing, in the popular style, further reflecting an impulse we had experienced time and time again in our travels: the impulse of the Salvadoran people to make their worship responsive to their community’s historical and present context. From the community of Romero’s crypt, to the Christian Base Communities and their formation schools, to now the parish mass in Perquin, Salvadoran religious leaders and lay people had a strong confidence in their own assessment of their liturgical needs, and a willingness to carry on as they needed to, even in opposition to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Following mass we loaded onto the bus and Daniel drove us to a short way to the community of Agua Blanca in Cacaopera, Morazán, where we met with Acción y Vida, an organization of youth leaders seeking to improve quality of life through sustained social and political engagement. We heard from a new generation of leaders who, while inspired by their formation in communities of resistance, feel unrepresented of the language and models of their parents. They are engaged in inspiring work to offer sexuality education to their communities, educate people about HIV/AIDS, and continue to insist that the voice of rural youth be a part of the formation of El Salvador’s future. Still, like many of the groups we have met with, their voices are on the distant margins of the national conversation, out of the boundaries of the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and maybe even not central to the discourse in their local communities, still they continue their work with impressive energy and a gentle but persistent spirit.
Finally, after a 5 hour ride back to San Salvador, we gathered for dinner with Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, who taught at the Catholic University. He is alive today only because he was out of the country, at a conference in Thailand, the night that is colleagues and their two housekeepers were murdered by the death squads. Sobrino’s talk captured the spirit of so many groups and individuals we had met. His theological affirmations were rooted in the reality of the lived experience of the people of El Salvador, and he was insistent that all true theology must be grounded in experience.
The people of El Salvador call Romero a Saint. While it may take generations for the Catholic Church to agree, Sobrino told us “reality makes things obvious.” Those who are grounded in reality know that “in Romero, God walked with us in El Salvador.” Sobrino spoke beautifully, clearly, and succinctly, without straying into complex reasoning or cloudy questions of ontology and metaphysics. He insisted that we all keep our eyes squarely on the suffering of the world, and act to end it, drawing on the stories and teachings of Christianity to reflect on and frame that action. Finally, he offered a perfect closing mantra for the fullness of what we met in El Salvador. Quoting from Micah he reminded us that our task is to walk humbly with God. Like Madre Alicia who walked into the teeth of an empire for the sake of truth, sustained by the potent power of a mother’s anguish; walk. Like the women who carry on a weekly mass in Romero’s crypt despite pressure from the Archbishop to stop; walk. Like the 6 year-old Children in formation schools in the countryside, learning the tragedy of their history and the hope of their parents struggle; walk. “The one thing we have learned here” Sobrino said, “is never to give up.”
Saturday, January 12th, 2013 - Perquin, Segundo Montes: Father Rogelio Poncel, Christian base community, Governor Miguel Ventura and Evelyn Ventura, visit with children.
A surreal wake-up call: 4,000 feet above sea level, roosters and crickets belt – harmonizing with my roommate Meghan’s buzzing travel alarm clock. In the mountainous village of Perquin, a place once controlled by guerilla forces (the FMLN) during El Salvador’s civil war, my anxious eyes open to another day of unknown adventure. Although unable to recall today’s exact itinerary, I have a feeling that the next twenty-four hours will somehow shake my life.
I snap yet another picture of my breakfast plate; it has become a harmless obsession. Refried beans, eggs, tortilla, avocado, watermelon and freshly squeezed orange juice. Our group chats and chuckles between bites and gulps. We then head up the hill to a conference hut for a meeting with Father Rogelio Poncel. He introduces himself as a Belgian priest who came to El Salvador some forty years ago. Despite innumerable death threats from the government and serious criticism from the Vatican especially during the war, he has dedicated much of his life to accompanying the poor living in the areas once controlled by the guerillas. Accompany, a word that I would hear echoed throughout this day, describes the act of someone who walks alongside those in need during their struggles.
We pack into our trusty van, and head out to meet with a Christian base community in Segundo Montes. As we approach the simple adobe church, we hear voices boisterously singing a misa popular hymn. When we enter, we are greeted by dozens of grinning faces, mostly women. The walls are covered with evocative words, like liberation and faith. There are also pictures of priestly martyrs; Oscar Romero’s photo hangs in the center. Yolanda, one of the group’s leaders, invites introductions. Then together, we sing a welcome song: “Buenas nuevas, buenas nuevas a mi pueblo (Welcome new persons, welcome new persons to my town).”
Just as we seminarians take our seats, we are asked to rise again and share an English song. What? Our startled eyes frantically search for someone with a bright, albeit instantaneous idea. “How about This Little Light Of Mine?” Sold! We timidly raise our out-of-harmony voices, and sporadically clap our hands. God help us – three more verses to go! Vandalyn, our impromptu choir director, sways her arms – madly attempting to organize the disorganized. And then, miraculously, our discordant voices start to blend, our claps are in sync, and our bodies enthusiastically bop up and down. Roaring applause follows.
The Salvadorians before us then tell us about the deep wounds left from the war: a weathered-looking Celina explains that her son is one of the thousands who disappeared; as a child, Rozanna’s parents left her behind while they fought with the guerillas; Yolanda was forced to take refuge in neighboring Honduras. Their stories are told plainly – without a call for pity. What’s more, their pasts seem to fuel their commitment to improve their community’s present. Some of their efforts include Christian formation classes for children, and a weekly mass held even when a priest is not present. They talk of wanting to build a library, and establishing a long-lasting partnership with our Union group.
We share lunch with Governor Miguel Ventura and his wife Evelyn. The governor, once a beloved priest, is still called Father by the region he serves. In a country that was once run by 14 families, he says that he is committed to keeping his door wide open to those in need.
His wife Evelyn tells us that during the war, her town was on the brink of starvation – everyone quartered tortillas to share with one another. She explains that troops were under order to massacre them, but when they arrived she managed to convince the troop’s leader, Francisco Mena [whom our group met days earlier] to defy his superiors; he called off the massacre, arranged for food and water to be sent to the village, and then, incredibly, changed his allegiance – joining the guerilla forces.
We end our day by splitting up and visiting some of the Christian formation classes for children. The smiling students have exemplary manners and are intrigued by the visitors who have “really seen snow”. We are told that the curriculum includes learning about the similarities between the martyred Oscar Romero and Jesus of Nazareth. One youngster explains that Romero was a prophet who lived and died for the Salvadorian people. Before we leave, we are inspired to teach the kids our new group anthem: This Little Light of Mine.
After a filling pupusa dinner, our group reflects on the events of the day. I find myself thinking back on our impromptu musical performance, and how, to my mind, it connects to the El Salvadorian resolve: no matter how daunting the circumstances, it is imperative to collectively persevere. Just sing, and the harmony will eventually follow.
Friday, January 11, 2013 – Perquin and El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador
After surviving an exhilarating, dusty, and at some points dangerous dance party, we awoke Friday for some delicious breakfast. Acting in the spirit of Romero, a cute kitten, several cows, at least one dog, and one very calm baby relaxing in a hammock pastorally accompanied us in our eating and digesting of breakfast – on the trip, eating and digesting were more of a struggle for some than others. Some – or at least one – of us later mistook a bunched up blanket to be the aforementioned baby, and may or may not have spoken soft baby words to this blanket for a somewhat extended amount of time.
After breakfast we piled onto the bus. Throughout the trip the bus was driven quite expertly by Daniel (sp?), pronounced somewhere in between the way we pronounce the male name “Daniel” and how we pronounce the female name “Danielle.” I felt slightly but consistently self-conscious that I was perhaps mispronouncing his name each time I uttered it, which happened quite often, usually preceded by a heartfelt “muchas gracias.” It is no exaggeration to say that Daniel kept us all alive, as he was the one primarily responsible for hydrating and transporting us.
I found the bus to be a sanctuary of unofficial time. In this itinerary-less world on wheels we were afforded the time to zone into or out of the world. Many stuck headphones into their ears. Others stared seemingly contemplatively out the window. I heard deep probing reflections on our previous encounters and, at least in the back of the bus, what one might call inappropriate conversation. And of course there was singing!
On this day Daniel was taking us from the Bajo Lempa region in the South of El Salvador to the more rural and mountainous Morazan (a territory in NE El Salvador). We arrived at our Hotel in Perquin at the Perkin Lenca Hotel. And yes, Perquin and Perkin are two different and legitimate spellings of the same word. In fact the sign for the Hotel reads “Perkin Lenca Hotel: Perquin, Morazan.” And in the restaurant in the Perkin Lenca hotel each chair has carved into it the word Lenka, with a K!
Believe it or not, to study the cohabitation of different spellings of the same words was not our reason for coming to Perquin. We came to see the site of and accompanying memorials for the Massacre at El Mozote. In 1981, an unimaginable but real series of events took place here and goes something like this: A civil war had been underway between the El Salvadoran army and the resistance guerilla forces. The guerilla forces were partly animated by Liberation Theology, which at the time in El Salvador was an almost exclusively Catholic phenomenon. I note this because El Mozote was primarily a Protestant population and its occupants were well known for their neutrality in the war, siding with neither the guerilla forces nor the army. El Mozote had however, on rare occasion, been the site of weapon pickups by the guerilla forces. The townspeople and surrounding peasant farmers were alerted that the army would be passing through the area. In order to demonstrate their cooperation and neutrality, and not to be mistaken for guerilla forces the townspeople and surrounding farmers met (unarmed) in the town’s center. They were promised that they would not be harmed if they did so.
The military death squads- I can assure you they deserve their name and then some- marched into the town. After searching the townspeople and finding nothing, they separated the men, women and children. They began by interrogating, torturing and murdering the men. Then they raped the women and “older” girls and machine gun-style executed them. If that’s not enough, these U.S. trained forces, (see School of the Americas) also brutally killed all the children by slitting their throats and lynching them.
Nearly every person in the town was inhumanely and unnecessarily killed. The death toll was at about 800 people. One of the only survivors, who recently died, escaped with a herd of cattle, but could recognize the screams of her husband and children being killed.
We visited two memorials that honored this terrible tragedy, which by the way was repeatedly denied by the Reagan Administration and the El Salvadoran government. As a group we did our best to carry ourselves with somber reflection in order to pay proper respect to the kind of suffering that stops you in your tracks. Surprisingly, this didn’t last as long as we would have expected. Three children accompanied us on our ~1km walk to the second, much grander memorial. They rode their bikes joyously and had many of us laughing and playing along with them. Their behavior demonstrated what was a common experience for us in El Salvador: intense heartbreaking tears are shed with full earnestness and then a moment later joy and laughter breaks out without a hint of inappropriateness, irreverence or inconsistency. Just as common is for someone who was a stranger just a minute prior to accompany you with genuine interest and an unselfconscious, simple and beautiful assumption that you both have become real friends, at least for the moment.
We briefly hiked up a hill nearby for a marvelous view. Others found horse friends to ride up. Although, once at the top, we were informed that the initial fee was only for the horse ride up, and that an additional fee equivalent to the initial one would be required to ride back down. Half of the two horse riders agreed to the additional fee.
After this we visited the museum of the Revolution of Perquin. There were about five groups of Guerilla forces that joined forces, forming the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and made Perquin their headquarters. Here locals proudly provided us a tour of this museum that honored the FMLN’s life and struggle.
We end the night with salsa dancing, showcasing at the very least our enthusiasm for dance. After such a day I felt a bit regretful that we ever had to leave this place. It’s so full of life, and the people possess that unflinching yet humble type of wisdom that only comes from persisting through something terrible. But we are thankful to be alive at all and to have another day to live in beautiful El Salvador.
* I was unsuccessful in uploading photos. I hope they will be forthcoming
Thursday – from Blanca and Lily
Thursday was another day full of wonder. We learned more about the history and present day struggles of El Salvador as we met with, and gained inspiration from, additional individuals sharing powerful stories.
*Over breakfast, Jenna Knapp of CRISPAZ, presented an overview of her work with gang-involved youth in San Salvador. Jenna uses art therapy and poetry workshops with these youth, many of whom are or have been incarcerated under inhumane conditions, especially in the detention centers. These young men and women are especially vulnerable to extra-judicial executions by the police.
*We spent the remainder of the morning in a riveting conversation with Francisco Mena Sandoval, a former member of the Salvadoran military, who defected at the start of the Civil War to join the FMLN in 1981 as a guerilla fighter and captain. (Francisco is the father of current CRISPAZ Director, Francisco Mena Ugarte.) Mr. Mena Sandoval told us of his experience participating in election fraud in 1977—a trigger event for the rise of the Salvadoran people in protest—at the direction of his military commanders. It was at this time that he came to know Roberto d’Aubuisson, a member of the National Guard and later a major in the Salvadoran army, who became the ruthless political leader in the onset and early years of the Civil War (from 1980 to 1985) and the principal proponent of assassinations by death squads. (Roberto d’Aubuisson is widely believed to be the mastermind of Archbishop Romero’s assassination in 1980.) Three times during Mena Sandoval’s military tenure, he received training from US military personnel – twice in Ft. Benning, GA at the School of the Americas (SOA) (renamed in 2001 as the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)) and once in Argentina. Mena Sandoval explained his intense internal moral conflict during his time as a military leader. Pivotal to his change of heart was his personal relationship with Archbishop Oscar Romero. At the risk of death, Mena Sandoval met with Archbishop Romero on a weekly basis and provided information about the atrocities being committed by the military, which Romero then reported in his Sunday homilies. It was after refusing to conduct a massacre of innocent and poor people in 1980 in Rosario, a small town in the Morazán district, that Mena Sandoval defected from the military and joined the FMLN’s liberation army in the Morazán district as captain of an elite force of guerrillas. During the Civil War, Morazán was able to become a liberated district.
*Before lunch, we had a brief opportunity to visit the CRISPAZ office and appreciate the handcrafted arts made by communities of Salvadorans as part of a program to promote local artisans by providing a marketplace with fair trade prices.
*Over lunch, we met with three people involved in a nascent LGBTQ advocacy movement in El Salvador. The LGBTQ community is also vulnerable to extra-judicial executions. These three individuals are focusing their efforts on creating an official organization, collecting data on human rights violations, seeking funds to hire a lawyer to represent members of the LGBTQ community, and advocating for enactment of anti-discrimination legislation with provisions to enforce those statutory rights.
*Thursday afternoon we made the two-hour drive to Bajo Lempa in Morazán where we met Noemi Ortiz, Elena Jaramillo and Father Pedro LeClerq at the Cultural Center of Oscar Romero. The three discussed their experiences working with Christian Base Communities (CBCs), which are organized around principles of a people’s theology grounded in the reality of oppression of the people. Over the past several years, Union’s very own Jenn Wilder has worked alongside CBC community leaders in various communities in Morazán. Morazán is a rural and very poor region of El Salvador where the people live mostly by the land. The end of the Civil War did not usher in economic reform and this region continues to face difficult socio-economic and environmental challenges. Rooted in their reality, the CBCs live out the Gospel of Christ by organizing economic cooperatives and other community, even infrastructural, projects to improve their lives. It is this type of Christian praxis, not dogma, which characterizes the CBC’s ideal of what the Church must be. During our conversation, Father Pedro talked about the importance of “touching the Earth.” This community’s way of living in reality, struggling and working together, and celebrating life and their accomplishments impressed us as genuinely joyful and inspired us.
*Following our meeting at the Cultural Center of Oscar Romero, we drove to the small village of Nueva Esperanza in Morazán. That evening, we had a lovely dinner at the home of Nina Conchita. Then, we danced the night away at our hostel with a group of local young musicians who played both traditional and contemporary dance music!
Space does not permit us to do justice to how moving this day was for us. That said, we’d like to add just one reflection. It cannot be gainsaid how unjust our own incarceration system is. Still, it was absolutely horrifying to hear of the typical detention practices in El Salvador where detainees, mostly young members of gangs who bear childhood scars of neglect and abuse, are held for months without even being charged with an offense, are kept in such crowded conditions that they must sleep standing up, and are not fed. Family members must bring food and drink, which is often confiscated by the correctional officers. It is not uncommon for detainees to have to drink their own urine. It is in the context of these extremely dehumanizing conditions, that Jenna Knapp seeks to uncover and preserve the humanity and dignity of these young people through the healing powers of art, poetry and narrative work, which gives these young men and women a means of expressing themselves and processing their traumatic experiences. With Jenna’s permission, we share one of the poems published by FESPAD in a recent book titled Duras Lecciones (Hard Lessons). As Jenna expressed, not only does this art prove hugely meaningful for the incarcerated youth, it also helps reveal the humanity, dignity and profundity of these youth, who are so often demonized and associated only with violence. To us, the poem also represents the spiritual profundity of the Salvadoran people, who despite the extreme repression and atrocities committed against them, maintain hope and their dignity, while also speaking to so many situations around the world.
Justicia. ¿Quál justicia?
Si la juventud se pierde cuando nos cierran las puertas
y nos dejan como guitarras.
¿Cómo esperas de tu justicia una rosa
si lo que siembras son espinas?
¿Cómo esperas escuchar
si nos exigido silencio?
Nos has cerrado las puertas,
nos has quitado la libertad
y nosotros solos pedimos una oportunidad.
¿Por qué nos das la espalda cuando te pedimos una mano?
¿Cómo nos pides amor
si nos has arrancado el corazon
y los tienes en una jaula
de la cual no puede salir?
¿Acaso no fuiste joven?
¿Acaso no cometiste errors?
Pero a nosotros nos dejan en el olvido,
Nos hacen perder nuestra juventud.
Siembran odio y quieren cultivar amor.
¿Por qué no extiendes tu mano y le das a mi corazón libertad?
Justice. What justice?
Youth is lost once they lock the doors
and leave us like guitars without strings.
How do you expect of your justice a rose,
if what you sow are thorns?
How do you expect to hear,
if you demand of us silence?
You have locked the doors,
You have taken our freedom,
and we only ask you for one chance.
Why do you turn your back to us when we ask you for a helping hand?
How can you ask for love
when you have ripped out our hearts
and keep us in a cage
from which we can not escape?
By chance you were never young?
By chance you never made mistakes?
But us you leave in oblivion,
You make us lose our youth.
You sow hate and want to cultivate love.
Why not extend your hand and free my heart?